When Martin Luther broke with Roman Catholic teaching and practice 500 years ago, one of his main areas of disagreement was the church’s selling of “indulgences”—donations to the church for which the person or his or her loved ones would have their time in purgatory reduced. (For more on indulgences and the unbiblical concept of purgatory, see “Martin Luther: The Unfinished Reformation ”.)
In reaction to this practice and the corrupting influence it had on the church, Luther proclaimed that salvation was a matter of “faith alone”—that one’s actions or “works” had nothing to do with it. This premise became a foundation for Protestant doctrine ever since, and most Protestant denominations accept this basic view in some form or another.
Salvation is God’s gift
Just to be clear, Scripture tells us that eternal life is God’s gift, not something any of us deserve or can in any way earn. But the key question we need to ask is this: Is faith alone, or belief alone, really all that is required for salvation? Or does God set conditions for us to receive His priceless gift? It’s vitally important to your relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ and to your future that you understand!
The Bible indeed shows that God does set certain conditions for receiving salvation. Meeting these conditions is not some-how earning salvation, which is a gift, but will permit us to receive that gift—while disregarding and failing to meet the conditions will disqualify us from receiving the gift. What are these conditions?
At some point in your life you may have seen religious tracts quoting Romans 10:9 Romans 10:9That if you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.
American King James Version×: “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Or maybe they quoted Acts 16:31 Acts 16:31And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, and your house.
American King James Version×: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”
Or perhaps they cited probably the single most-quoted verse of the Bible, John 3:16 John 3:16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
American King James Version×: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” From these verses millions of people believe that all they must do is believe in Jesus Christ and their salvation is assured.
Do this, the tracts tell us, and we have the promise of eternal life. But is this all there is to it? Is faith or belief all that God requires of us for salvation? Some assume these few passages are the final word on the subject. But is that true?
If you’ve studied your Bible much at all, you probably realize that we must look at a number of verses scattered throughout Scripture to get the whole picture. We must look at all the Bible says on the subject to come to a proper understanding. And few things could be more important than understanding what we must do—or not do—if we are to receive God’s gift of eternal life.
Belief is a clear requirement—but is there more?
Certainly belief in God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son, as They are described in Scripture, is crucial. Hebrews 11:6 Hebrews 11:6But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
American King James Version×tells us, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” So belief in God and having living, active faith in Him is vital to pleasing God and receiving His gift of salvation.
And again, salvation to eternal life is God’s gift by grace—His loving favor and acceptance toward us—as Ephesians 2:8-9 Ephesians 2:8-9 8 For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
American King James Version×explains: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Salvation is God’s gift, unearned and undeserved on our part. No one will ever be able to boast that he or she has earned or deserves the gift of eternal life.
But it doesn’t stop at simple belief and grace. Can we do things—or not do things—that disqualify us from receiving that wonderful gift from God? The answer is crucial to your relationship with God and to your future!
The fact is, as noted earlier, the Bible shows that God sets certain conditions for receiving salvation. Meeting these conditions will enable us to receive that gift, while disregarding and failing to meet them will disqualify us from receiving it.
Consider the following statement in Scripture regarding what is required of us in receiving salvation through Jesus Christ. Hebrews 5:8-9 Hebrews 5:8-9 8 Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;
9 And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation to all them that obey him;
American King James Version×says of Him, the author of our salvation: “Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (emphasis added throughout).
Can gifts have conditions?
Since salvation is God’s gift, what does this passage mean when it speaks of “eternal salvation to all who obey Him”? If we must do something to receive God’s gift of salvation, how can it be a gift?
To use an analogy, if someone offered to send you $100 if you would send him a self-addressed stamped envelope, he would be offering you a gift. Simply believing that he would send you the money would not actually get you the money. And if you failed to send the envelope, you likewise would not receive the money. You might complain, but you still would not receive the gift because you had not met the conditions.
On the other hand, if you sent the required envelope and received the $100, this does not mean you earned the gift. You simply met the necessary conditions. Without the offer of the undeserved gift, you could’ve sent hundreds of envelopes and received nothing, as you would have been entitled to nothing. The fact that conditions are attached to receiving a gift makes it no less a gift. Millions of people fail to understand this simple fact.
What must we do?
Since Jesus is the author of our salvation, let’s examine a few of His statements that tell us what we must do to receive that gift of salvation—eternal life with Him.
In Matthew 7:21 Matthew 7:21Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven.
American King James Version×Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” Here Jesus clearly states that merely acknowledging Him as Lord and Master—saying “Lord, Lord”— is not sufficient. To inherit the Kingdom of God, we must do something. We must do the will of the Father, as Jesus clearly stated.
Jesus wants us to understand that there is more to receiving eternal life than just belief or mental acceptance. Our conviction that He is our Savior must be more than just a warm, comforting thought or intellectual concept. Jesus warns that simply calling on His name or recognizing Him as “Lord” is not enough.
At one point a wealthy young man asked Jesus how he could receive eternal life: “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16 Matthew 19:16And, behold, one came and said to him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
American King James Version×). Christ’s reply, in Matthew 19:17 Matthew 19:17And he said to him, Why call you me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.
American King James Version×, might shock some who think obedience to God’s law is unnecessary—that He has done that for us so we don’t have to do anything. Jesus responded, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
Jesus didn’t answer that nothing is required other than believing in God or in Him. He told the young man he must obey the commandments of God to receive the gift of eternal life. How plain! Then, when asked which commandments, Jesus quoted from several of the Ten Commandments and another summary commandment from the Old Testament Scriptures.
As the apostle James (the half brother of Jesus Christ) points out, belief is pointless unless it is backed up by action and obedience: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe —and tremble” (James 2:19 James 2:19You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
American King James Version×). If we think that belief is all we need for salvation, we are sorely mistaken! As James tells us, the demonic spirits fully believe in the existence of the one true God. They further know that Jesus is the Son of God raised from the dead. But the demons’ believing in these facts doesn’t mean they are saved!
James goes on to explain that faith —belief and trust in God— and obedience go hand in hand: “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:20-22 James 2:20-22 20 But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son on the altar?
22 See you how faith worked with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
American King James Version×).
James’ point here is that works of obedience as a result of our faith maintain our relationship with God and lead to greater faith and obedience, as God requires. Without works as evidence of our faith, our faith is dead —worthless and useless.
Regrettably, Martin Luther failed to understand these biblical truths, dismissing the book of James as “an epistle of straw” that didn’t really belong in the Bible.
Baptism and the laying on of hands
Are there other conditions one must meet for receiving God’s gift of eternal life? Notice what Jesus stated in Mark 16:16 Mark 16:16He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned.
American King James Version×: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
Water baptism—meaning full immersion—is a symbolic act representing the death and washing away of our old sinful self and the beginning of a new life of serving God and striving to avoid sin (Romans 6:1-23 Romans 6:1-23 1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
3 Know you not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that from now on we should not serve sin.
7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.
8 Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him:
9 Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dies no more; death has no more dominion over him.
10 For in that he died, he died to sin once: but in that he lives, he lives to God.
11 Likewise reckon you also yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in the lusts thereof.
13 Neither yield you your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin: but yield yourselves to God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for you are not under the law, but under grace.
15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.
16 Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey; whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness?
17 But God be thanked, that you were the servants of sin, but you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.
18 Being then made free from sin, you became the servants of righteousness.
19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as you have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity to iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness to holiness.
20 For when you were the servants of sin, you were free from righteousness.
21 What fruit had you then in those things whereof you are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.
22 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end everlasting life.
23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
American King James Version×). Through this act we symbolically put to death and bury the old person with his or her sins and rise from that watery grave to a new life as a new person.
Baptism is to be followed by the laying on of hands by a true minister of Jesus Christ, which allows us to receive God’s Holy Spirit and truly belong to Him (Acts 8:17 Acts 8:17Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
American King James Version×; Romans 8:9 Romans 8:9But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.
American King James Version×). Unless we surrender our lives to God through baptism and the laying on of hands to receive His Spirit as instructed, we fail to meet—whether knowingly or unknowingly—this important requirement for receiving His gift of salvation.
The apostle Peter also affirmed these conditions for receiving God’s Spirit, declaring, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
American King James Version×). Repentance means to turn from disobedience to God to obeying Him. So again, committed obedience and baptism are shown to be requirements in the salvation process.
To those who would brush aside these and other plain biblical instructions Jesus replies, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?’” (Luke 6:46 Luke 6:46And why call you me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?
American King James Version×). All too many rationalize around what Scripture plainly says—and in so doing do exactly what Jesus here warned against!
In Matthew 10:22 Matthew 10:22And you shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endures to the end shall be saved.
American King James Version×and Matthew 24:13 Matthew 24:13But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved.
American King James Version×Jesus gave another condition we must meet to receive God’s gift of salvation: “He who endures to the end will be saved.” Some believe in the unbiblical teaching known as “eternal security” or “once saved, always saved.” But as Jesus plainly and directly implied here, we can lose out on salvation if we fail to endure to the end.
Once we have committed ourselves to obeying God and surrendering ourselves to Him, we must stay the course to the end and not look back (Luke 9:62 Luke 9:62And Jesus said to him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
American King James Version×). Even the apostle Paul realized that he needed to discipline himself to be in total subjection to God—“lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27 1 Corinthians 9:27But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
American King James Version×). He clearly understood that through neglect he could lose out on God’s gift of salvation! (compare Hebrews 2:1-3 Hebrews 2:1-3 1 Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. 2 For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; 3 How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by them that heard him;
American King James Version×).
Salvation is free, but not cheap
You may have heard the expression, “Salvation is free, but not cheap.” God’s gift of life to us cost Jesus Christ His life. He, the very Son of God, willingly surrendered His life so that we might receive God’s wonderful gift of eternal life. And it cost the Father, who “gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16 John 3:16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
American King James Version×).
But God expects us to surrender our lives in return, as Jesus states in Luke 14:26-27 Luke 14:26-27 26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
27 And whoever does not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
American King James Version×: “If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, more than your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And you cannot be my disciple if you do not carry your own cross and follow me” (New Living Translation 1996).
Our love for and commitment to Jesus Christ and God the Father must be more important to us than any other relationship. Each of us must be willing to bear his “cross,” to faithfully follow Jesus even through life’s most difficult challenges.
Luke 14:28-33 Luke 14:28-33 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sits not down first, and counts the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?
29 Lest haply, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him,
30 Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.
31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, sits not down first, and consults whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that comes against him with twenty thousand?
32 Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an ambassador, and desires conditions of peace.
33 So likewise, whoever he be of you that forsakes not all that he has, he cannot be my disciple.
American King James Version×carries on that thought, warning us to consider carefully that accepting the gift of eternal life comes at the highest cost we can imagine. “So no one can become my disciple without giving up everything for me” (verse 33, NLT, 1996). As Jesus Christ gave His life for us, we must be willing to give our lives to follow Him!
So returning to the title of this article, is faith alone all that’s required for God’s gift of salvation? Clearly the answer is no. His Word spells out certain conditions for us. Let us be sure, as Hebrews 2:3 Hebrews 2:3How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by them that heard him;
American King James Version×exhorts us, that we not “neglect so great a salvation”!
Luther Followed Early Catholic Anti-Semitism
The erroneous teachings of the Catholic church weren’t the only factors that influenced Martin Luther’s theology. He rightly condemned the church’s corruption and the false teachings that fed it, and this was a major factor in his belief that we are saved by our faith or belief alone—that obedience to God isn’t a requirement.
But another factor fed into Martin Luther’s views, and that was his virulent anti-Semitism. In the early days of the Reformation, he believed that, once he had purified the church of its corruption and doctrinal error, Jews would now recognize the truth and flock to the new, improved church. When they didn’t convert as he expected, he turned on them in bitterness and anger.
Luther’s attitude toward Jews is summed up in the title of one of his books— The Jews and Their Lies. Following are some excerpts:
“I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them.”
“Now just behold these miserable, blind, and senseless people … their blindness and arrogance are as solid as an iron mountain.”
“Therefore be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer selfglory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously …”
“Moreover, they are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us … Thus they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery …”
“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy.”
“I shall give you my sincere advice: First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.”
“… I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues.”
“… I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
“… I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.”
“My essay, I hope, will furnish a Christian … to become the foe of the Jews’ malice, lying, and cursing, and to understand not only that their belief is false but that they are surely possessed by all devils.”
(From Luther’s Works, E.T. Bachmann, ed.,1971, vol. 47, pp. 268-293. Read more in “Martin Luther’s Hatred of Jews”.)
In all this Luther was following in the footsteps of an earlier anti-Semite—Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who had legalized Christianity in A.D. 313 and used it as a tool to help unite his empire. But the version of Christianity Constantine approved was itself deeply anti-Semitic, having rejected the Jewish roots of a Church whose founder and 12 apostles were all Jewish.
In declaring to be heretics those who refused to follow the Roman church in its celebration of Easter instead of the biblical Passover observed by Jesus Christ, the apostles and the early Church, Constantine wrote: “It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast [Easter] we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul . . . Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd: for we have received from our Savior a different way . . .
“Strive and pray continually that the purity of your soul may not seem in anything to be sullied by fellowship with the custom of these most wicked men . . . All should unite in desiring that which sound reason appears to demand, avoiding all participation in the perjured conduct of the Jews” (as recorded by Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3, 18-19, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1979, second series, Vol. 1, pp. 524-525).
Sadly, both the Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity have rejected many of the original beliefs and practices of the early Church, labeling them “Jewish” (see “What Did the Early Church Believe and Practice?”). The beliefs and practices of what is called Christianity today are far different from those of the early Church. To learn more, download or request our free study guides The Church Jesus Built , Sunset to Sunset: God’s Sabbath Rest , Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe? and Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach?